The day (5/23/2023) began just before sunrise, with Ingrid and I rising at 5am in anticipation of our 5-hour road trip to San Giovanni Rotondo. Our primary destination was the shrine of St. Padre Pio, a revered figure known for his powerful intercession. The excitement was palpable as we prepared for the journey ahead.
At 6am, our group convened in the piazza, gathering together to meet our guide, Andrew. Our group consisted of ten individuals, including the two drivers. As the clock approached shortly after 6am, the first van departed, setting off on our adventure. However, we found ourselves needing to pause briefly, as Ingrid rushed back to our nearby apartment to double-check if we had left the iron on. Within a mere five minutes, we were back on track, ready to embark on our memorable excursion..
An hour into our trip, we did our first pit stop at a solitary gas station in the middle of nowhere to grab some breakfast. It was coffee and croissant for most of us. Nothing fancy, just a straightforward Italian breakfast. Before leaving we bought some road trip snacks. I got cipster. It’s something I saw being sold a few days ago in the Italian Open Tennis and got curious how it tastes. I didn’t buy it or any food during the tennis match because I avoided drinking as I didn’t want the trouble of needing to use the toilet in the middle of a tennis match. After 20 minutes, we were back on the road. The journey was relatively uneventful with only olive trees and vineyards occasionally punctuating the landscape. A serene expanse of greenery beneath the endless blue skies provided the perfect backdrop to try the cipster. It has an interesting taste, difficult to describe. It resembled kropeck that tasted like potato chips, or perhaps the other way around. Nevertheless, I found it enjoyable.
I approached the trip without dwelling on the specifics or setting specific expectations for myself. I consciously chose not to anticipate or plan too extensively, as I didn’t want to risk being disappointed. Instead, I embraced the idea that traveling should be a journey of discovery, allowing oneself to be open to whatever unfolds. By avoiding excessive research and maintaining a sense of spontaneity, the experience becomes more enjoyable and filled with surprises. Sometimes, it’s best to simply have a general destination in mind and let the journey unfold naturally, embracing the unknown and allowing for unexpected adventures along the way.
After a 30-minute drive, we traversed through San Marco, a charming town nestled within the province of Foggia. The vibrant atmosphere immediately caught my attention. Despite its small size, the streets were bustling with elderly individuals leisurely strolling and congregating in the town square. Numerous cafes, gelato shops, and small businesses added to the lively ambiance. Curious about the town’s economy, I inquired with our driver, who informed me that the majority of San Marco’s residents were involved in farming. This picturesque setting perfectly embodied my perception of contemporary rural Italy.
As we approached San Giovanni Rotondo, we ascended the mountain via a winding road, maneuvering through its zigzag curves at a speed of 80-100 km per hour, causing us to sway from side to side. Finally, at 11:20 am, we reached our destination, greeted by impeccable weather that struck the perfect balance between warmth and coolness. Eager to explore, we stepped into an elevator that brought us upwards. Stepping out of the elevator, we found ourselves in a vast, open space, with the old church and the hospital constructed by St. Pio visible to the right. Strolling along the open space, we veered left to visit the church, where we dedicated a few minutes to prayer and captured some memorable photographs. The church, although modern in its design, maintained a traditional essence that permeated its atmosphere.
After our brief visit to the church, we descended to pay homage to the body of St. Pio. As we made our way towards the chapel, we traversed a corridor adorned with vibrant mosaics, adding an artistic touch to our journey. However, upon reaching the chapel, we realized that a Mass was in progress, and we would only be able to approach the altar, where St. Pio’s body lay, once the Mass concluded.
As soon as the Mass ended, we promptly joined the line of eager visitors. Fortunately, the line was not excessively long and was steadily progressing. It did, however, irk me to witness some individuals attempting to cut in line. Regardless, the atmosphere was filled with prayers, the gentle touch of hands against the glass, and the clicking of cameras capturing the moment.
When my turn arrived, I stood before St. Pio’s preserved form, gazing at him with reverence. I reached out to touch the glass, making the sign of the cross as a sign of gratitude for his unwavering intercession. A sense of awe enveloped me as I captured a few photographs, preserving the memory of this profound encounter.
Ingrid, desiring more time in St. Pio’s presence, chose to line up again, and I willingly accompanied her. The entire experience felt surreal, especially considering that just a few years ago, we had fervently prayed for this very moment. Today, our prayers had been answered, and we were granted the opportunity to be in the presence of such spiritual significance.
Following our encounter with St. Pio’s body, we proceeded to the old church to explore a collection of his relics. Among the various personal items on display, such as books, chairs, clocks, and even soaps, I found his pens particularly intriguing. A selection of fountain pens was showcased, capturing my attention. One pen, specifically, caught my eye as it rested in its elegant Mont Blanc box. Additionally, there were several pens bundled together in a plastic bag, resembling the iconic Parker 51 design, yet distinctly different from actual Parkers. Regrettably, I couldn’t identify the exact make or model of those mysterious pens.
As our visit extended into lunchtime, we made our way to a small restaurant situated beside the complex. As expected, the food proved to be delightful. I opted for a pasta dish with a rich red sauce complemented by the flavors of eggplants and arugula, although I can’t recall the specific name of the dish. Being no food blogger, I simply reveled in the delicious flavors. The wine served was light and paired well with the meal, although I am by no means a wine connoisseur, content with savoring the combination of flavors.
Following our satisfying lunch, we were pleasantly surprised when the restaurant generously offered us complimentary servings of limoncello and amaretto. However, what made our dining experience truly captivating was the couple seated beside us. The woman hailed from Laguna in the Philippines, and the man, an Italian doctor, happened to be her former patient. Their connection blossomed into love, ultimately leading them to marry. It was an intriguing reminder that the most captivating aspect of any meal often lies in the stories and experiences shared by those around us, transcending the mere enjoyment of food itself.
Just as we were preparing to depart, the rain began to pour. I couldn’t help but feel grateful that it had held off until after our visit. It was truly a blessing. Following our lunch, we made our way to Monte Sant’Angelo to explore the sanctuary of St. Michael, the oldest shrine in Western Europe. According to legend, in the year 490, St. Michael the Archangel appeared multiple times to the bishop of Sipontum, instructing him to dedicate the cave to Christian worship and promising protection against pagan invaders.
To access the shrine, I descended a flight of stairs. At the bottom, the entrance to the cave awaited, while pews lined the right-hand side, leading towards the altar. The ceiling differed from any of the Roman churches we were familiar with; it consisted of natural mountain rock, a gray expanse devoid of any defined shape, painted by the forces of nature itself. The atmosphere within the sanctuary was characterized by shadows rather than light, creating an aura of solemnity and sacredness, an accumulation of countless prayers and miracles.
However, it’s not only the church that adds to the allure of the place. The small and picturesque town, adorned with charming little shops offering a variety of goods, ranging from delectable food items to colorful souvenirs, adds an extra layer of enchantment. It’s truly a delightful setting.
Despite spending ten hours on the road for just a couple of hours at the St. Pio shrine, where we marveled at his presence and learnt about his pens, and at the Sanctuary of St. Michael, where we offered our prayers and strolled through the charming streets of the town, the time and effort invested felt entirely worthwhile. If given the opportunity, I would certainly choose to spend a night in Foggia, as it would provide an even more immersive experience, allowing me to delve deeper into the wonders of this captivating destination.